We bass fishermen are taught from the first moment we pick up a rod that bass can be caught around "cover" — stumps, brush, flooded bushes, standing and fallen timber, lily pads, milfoil, hydrilla, boulders and other objects in the water. Most of us give lip service to this advice by making a cast or two at the obvious laydown or weed patch as we fish our way down the bank, but are we really fishing cover correctly? In my 34 years as a Bassmaster correspondent, I've fished with the best professional anglers in the nation, and I can assure you that they approach cover differently than most of us weekend warriors. What can we Bassmasters do to improve our proficiency at probing those weedy, woody and rocky places where bass hang out? I posed this question to Minneola, Texas, pro Kelly Jordon, a four time Classic qualifier and one of the hottest young guns on the tournament trail. Jordon has a unique ability to analyze bass cover and approach it with the best possible lures and presentations. Here, in his own words, he shares his perspectives on how to fish familiar bass cover.
— Don Wirth
Fear of hang-ups
I see a surprising number of folks on the water who are either timid about getting their lures close to cover, or are fishing cover improperly. I'm no Sigmund Freud, but I believe many anglers have a latent fear of hanging up their lures. Remember those first fishing trips with Dad or Grandpa? Chances are you were warned to steer clear of brush, weeds and anything else that might grab your bait and break your line. Of course, eventually you'd screw up and bust off Dad's prized plug in a sunken tree limb, which made him mighty unhappy and made you overly cautious about chunking your lure "too close" to cover. All I can say is get over it! There are days when bass roam far from their home base in a brushpile or weedbed, but more often, you've got to hit or penetrate the cover with your baits to catch fish.
Another common mistake anglers make is approaching cover as a unit or solid mass, rather than keying on its variations and subtle changes. They see a big patch of grass, but fail to notice the little points and pockets along its edges, or the places where milfoil transitions to coontail, or the small holes in the interior of the bed. Bass are seldom distributed evenly in a patch of cover, but tend to concentrate where these edges and irregularities occur. You'll waste a lot of time fishing every inch of a big mass of cover — if I did this in a tournament, I'd never cash a paycheck! Instead, I try to skip the unproductive stuff and put my lures in the places where bass are most likely to be.
Learn to watch for subtle cues that a piece of cover may be giving you. Last year, I did a "Day on the Lake" article with Bassmaster writer Don Wirth on a private lake. I caught many of my keeper fish from a shallow ditch that ran through a brushy flat, a spot Don had never noticed before, even though he'd fished the lake many times. It was like one of those perceptual picture puzzles where you try to pick out the Mona Lisa from what at first appears to be a jumble of meaningless shapes and colors — once I pointed out how a narrow, open lane of water snaked through the brush, the ditch jumped out at him.
Visualizing cover underwater is another skill that's learned only by spending time on the water; it can help you home in on a prime fishing opportunity quickly. If I see the tip of a tree limb sticking above the surface, I can usually tell by its angle how the submerged part of the tree is laying in relation to the bank, which tells me how I should present my lure to the cover. If I see a line of emergent grass with a well-defined outer edge, that tells me there's a sudden depth change there, or a change in bottom composition — sand to rock, maybe. Again, keep your eyes open and use your imagination to visualize hidden hot spots.
Finally, many bass anglers are too limited in their lure choices for the type of cover they're fishing. They see thick wood or weed cover and only think of weedless lures — like worms, tube baits and scum frogs. Here's a news flash: a great cover bait is not necessarily weedless! I often fish a lipless crankbait in grass, even though it sinks like a rock and has two treble hooks that could snag weeds like crazy . . . if I let them. The key lies in the presentation — you need to burn this lure through that thin band of open water on top of the grass, or rip it through the weeds — this sheds grass off the hooks and provokes a reaction strike. A deep diving crankbait isn't weedless, but it works great around shallow stumps — that big lip deflects off the cover like gangbusters, which is usually when a strike occurs. Sure, you'll occasionally get hung up when using these baits in cover, but so what? You'll catch a boatload of bass on 'em.
Tips for fishing specific types of cover
Matted weeds — This is my absolute favorite form of cover, one that's common in the Texas lakes I fish back home. Hydrilla, milfoil, coontail and other junk weeds grow up from the bottom in "towers" with open water between them, then lay over and spread out on top to form a mat. You can catch some bass along the outer edges of the stuff on a worm or tube, or on top of the mat with a weedless frog, but the majority of the fish will be hanging beneath the mat, often suspended in open water. Weed mats can be intimidating to fish — I've seen grass clog up 3 feet thick on top. The key is to use a heavy lure — I like either a 1-ounce Lake Fork Tackle MegaJig or their MegaTube with a 1-ounce sinker — and a slap-cast that punches a hole through the mat so the lure sinks into the open water below. Then once it's penetrated the grass, I'll shake and hop it to entice a strike. Braided line is a must here; it slices through grass mats better than mono.
Lily pad s — Pads provide tremendous shade and overhead cover for bass; the water is often several degrees cooler in a pad field than elsewhere in the lake during summer. But pads are also great bass attractors in other seasons: During early spring, dead pads will hold staging bass, a pattern many anglers overlook. Pads often occur by the thousands in areas with a soft muck bottom; look for pockets and points, holes and trails indicating boat lanes, ditches and channels, which are routes bass use when moving around in this cover. Bluegill feed on insects attracted to the pads' fragrant blossoms, which open when the sun gets high; this explains why midday is prime time for pad fishing. Besides the obvious weedless frogs, rats and slop spoons, spinnerbaits, buzzbaits, lipless crankbaits and floating worms are good lure choices here. Use braided line in pads; it floats so you aren't constantly wrapping around the stems. A long rod elevates the line off the pads and a slow-speed reel provides winching power in this extreme cover.
Hyacinth mats — These aquatic plants are not rooted to the bottom and will drift with wind and current. They'll pack into river bends and calm backwaters, offering superb overhead cover. Bass have complete mobility beneath hyacinths to chase bluegill and shiners. Pull a heavy tube bait, jig or craw off the edges of the mat or drop it vertically between the plants to bass suspending beneath the cover. I use a flipping stick and 80-pound SpiderWire here.
Standing timber — Flooded trees often line creek and river channels in a reservoir. If the water is clear, bass suspend around them, and a suspending jerkbait will whack 'em. If it's murky, try a deep diving rattling crankbait or a 3/4- to 1-ounce spinnerbait. Complete trees or limbs may break off in storms and provide good bottom cover for bass, provided they aren't too deep; swim a jig through this wood. Standing timber is one of the easiest forms of cover to read; key on boat lanes, channels and ditches that meander through it.
Stumps — Generally, the bigger the stump, the more appealing it is to bass. The root system is of major importance; when earth erodes from under the stump, bass will move into the hole, waiting to ambush prey. Don't just target the top of the stump — shake a jig or tube around its outer perimeter to catch bass holding in the roots. You don't need a lot of stumps to make a great bass spot — a single stump on the end of a point can be a dream scenario for a big bass in a reservoir. Stumps lining a channel or ditch are superb cold weather bass cover; flip a jig here. Often, a bar or flat will be peppered with stumps; the biggest bass in the area is often holding on that lone stump that's apart from the rest. Spinnerbaits and medium and deep diving crankbaits are also classic stump lures.
Laydown trees and logs — The key to catching bass from laydowns is to retrieve your lure lengthways instead of crossways; this way, you're hitting all the cover, not just a small portion of it. If you spot a log extending from the shore into the lake, make your initial cast about 10 feet out from where it enters the water; this gives you a shot at bass hanging around the end of the tree. Make casts halfway up the tree and then the entire length of the tree — using this incremental approach allows you to catch several bass from different locations along the cover without spooking them. Bass hold at key junctures where large limbs jut off from the trunk; be sure to bump your lure into these hot spots. Swim a jig, slow roll a spinnerbait or run a crankbait around laydowns.
Brush — Submerged brushpiles may seem impenetrable, but they're comprised of thousands of pliable, spindly branches, and bass are capable of burrowing into them — a common occurrence during frontal passages. A spinnerbait or crankbait will cover the outer edges, but it takes a jig or tube and a patient presentation with stout tackle to catch fish holding deep in brush. Your best approach is to flip or pitch the lure to the cover and shake it repeatedly — cold front bass are sluggish, and sometimes it takes a whole lotta shakin' before they'll respond. Partially submerged willow bushes are dynamite in spring; willows grow in a hard bottom, which bass prefer for spawning. Look for bass beds around the bushes and fish a floating worm or tube bait for spawners. A tremendous food chain sets up in willow bushes during a mayfly hatch; try a shallow diving firetiger crankbait to mimic a small bluegill.
Rocks — This is probably the least attractive form of cover to largemouth bass, but they'll use it in lakes lacking abundant wood or weeds. Smallmouth and spotted bass, both of which feed heavily on crawfish, are more attuned to rock cover than largemouth. A common mistake is fishing all the way down a rock bank when there are probably only one or two places on the structure that hold 80 percent of the bass. These are invariably where a major transition occurs, a spot where one kind or size of rock changes into another (gravel to shale, fist-sized to head-sized, etc.). Bass often suspend in clear, rocky lakes during the day; a suspending jerkbait, deep diving crankbait or heavy spinnerbait can score bites. Topwater poppers and stickbaits work well over submerged rockpiles and scattered boulders. Secondary cover in the form of stumps, laydown trees or weedbeds is huge in a rocky lake — always fish it if you're lucky enough to find it.